Latest book reviews

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday (Phoenix/Orion, £7.99)
The opening chapter finds Wilberforce (he is only known by his surname) getting shockingly drunk in a restaurant, having ordered himself  two £3,000 bottles of Petrus 1982 – preceded by a Sauternes aperitif. His obsession for drinking expensive wine, the rarer the better, has landed him in penury, unemployment and social exclusion. Moreover, at the age of 37, he is dying, unmourned.

The book chronicles, with wit and tenderness, the tragedy of Wilberforce, a sober-living, socially-inadequate but phenomenally successful software programming expert who becomes beguiled by a dying wine merchant, the first person to respect him. Wilberforce flirts with a new, upper-class social set, falls passionately in love, is loved in return and, for the first time, is subsumed with an interest beyond computers. But a genuine interest in the history of wine, and a promise made to a dying man, leads to alcoholism.

Do not be put off by the depressing premise of the story, for tragedy is laced with humour and perspicacity – Wilberforce’s sojourn in a drying-out clinic is a particular tour de fource. The pace of the writing, which made Torday’s first book, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, such a hit, makes this second novel equally mesmerising and deserving of success.
There’s a Hippo in my Cistern by Pete May (Harper Collins, £7.99)
This book has especial resonance for journalists as Loaded lad collides with former Horse & Hound lass turned energetic Green campaigner.

Pete May, a wonderfully funny writer, lives a life of laddish consumerism based around his nerdish expertise on West Ham. He is unreconstructed Essex man in his mid-30s, eating takeaways and turning up the central heating – Carbon Footprint, they’re a band aren’t they?. Nicola is public school, pony club educated ‘eco-toff’ with incredible energy, powers of persuasion, organisational skills and an endearing habit of speaking in exclamation marks.

Pete thinks he wants to be with Nicola, but he doesn’t want to freeze to death nor lower his chilly buttocks onto a compost loo. He will have no choice. Very soon, he is digging allotments, delivering vegetables, riding a bike, composting, sharing bath water and protesting at Newbury. Flying, leaving the TV on and flushing the loo after one visit are but distant dreams.

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He gets his own back by lampooning her dreadlocked friends, including a man who keeps warm by wearing four pairs of trousers. But Nicola’s enthusiasm – ‘It’ll be great! Our own vegetables!’ 3 sneaks up on him and Green babies are a foregone conclusion.

This is, in fact, a love story disguised as a palatable, funny, inspiring and probably the only really readable, non-patronising guide to a greener life.
Self Help by Edward Docx (Picador, £7.99)
Maria Glover, alone and dying in her native St Petersburg, has summoned her two children, but they arrive too late. They lead unsatisfactory lives on either side of the world, Gabriel editing a pointless magazine and grappling with a complicated love life in London and Isabella in a pointless relationship in New York.

Neither wants anything to do with Nicholas, their outrageously cruel, bisexual father, who lives in Paris, but their mother’s death forces them out of their inertia and makes them rethink their lives.

Meanwhile, Arkady Alexandrovitch, a talented pianist, selflessly helped by the doomed British drug addict Henry, is making his tortuous way from Russia to London, where he also hopes his life will change. The whole book is brilliantly written, but the darkness of the Russian scenes are particularly evocative.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess that all these strands are intertwined, and that Maria Glover had secrets which she didn’t have time to impart. But this is one of those rare novels in which the author, longlisted for the 2007 Booker, bothers to produce a properly satisfying and surprising denouement, the quest for which will have the reader hooked to the end.

When Will There Be Good News? By Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
Joanna Hunter, a seemingly together GP and, poignantly, mother of a small baby, has a ghastly secret. When she was six, her mother, sister, baby brother and pet dog were murdered by a madman; she only escaped by fleeing into a cornfield, but appears to have gone on to a normal life.

Thirty years later, the murderer is released from prison, which coincides with Dr H suddenly vanishing to visit a sick aunt. But her nanny, 16-year-old Reggie Chase, to whom Dr H is the only stability in a fairly dreadful world, doesn’t buy the aunt story, and drives policewoman Louise Monroe mad with her suspicions.

Fortuitously, a train crash brings Reggie into contact with Jackson Brodie, world-weary detective hero of Case Histories and One Good Turn. In another coincidence – Kate Atkinson’s endearing and readable detective stories depend on these – Jackson and Louise have ‘history’, but can Reggie persuade them of the urgency of the situation before it is too late? Another wonderfully woven tale from this original author.
The Private Patient by P.D. James (Faber & Faber)
Rhoda Gradwyn has risen from an unpromising upbringing to become a brilliant and famously tenacious investigative journalist. Now in her 40s, she makes the fateful decision to have a disfiguring facial scar removed by plastic surgery because ‘she has no need of it’ any more.

On the advice of her only friend, the whiney, dependent Robin, she has the operation done privately at Cheverell Manor in Dorset, where he has family connections.  But Rhoda Gradwyn’s reputation goes before her and not everyone at Cheverell Manor is welcoming. Predictably, she is murdered in bed, and Baroness James’ enduring creation Adam Dalgleish, who is at last getting married, is called in to solve the crime.

As there’s no time to flesh out Rhoda’s character – frustratingly, as she’s easily the most interesting person in the book – it is clearly fear of what she might discover that is the motive. The Manor is suitably creepy, the staff are a disparate, suspicious crew and, at first, everyone has a motive, as the guilty party performs an even more grisly murder in a further attempt at a cover up.

This is another typically elegant, engrossing offering from the doyenne of crime fiction but – and perhaps I just got lucky – this time the answer seemed more obvious than usual.